In Memory of an Ascetic Archpastor
“Do not forget that right next to the Theological University in Belgrade, where I send you for spiritually-beneficial studies, is a ‘living academy,’ our father Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), my former spiritual counsellor and benefactor, now a great teacher and hierarch of the Universal Orthodox Church of Christ. Visit him often, for you will draw from him the wealth of knowledge and wisdom which any theological school will unlikely be able to provide.” These were the words I heard in Yugoslavia in 1932 by His Beatitude Dionisij, when I was in threat of being expelled from Warsaw University as a result of my protest against a prohibition by the Ministry on using one’s native tongue during meetings of the Theological Group.
Metropolitan Anthony received me like a father, with love, tenderness and attention, and the Elder would berate us if we didn’t come see him every day. In Metropolitan Anthony’s modest residence, I met Hieromonk John (Maximovich). I often witnessed the fatherly attitude of Vladyka Anthony to Fr John; his eyes, his every word to Fr John shone with joy for his spiritual son, full of trust and gratitude that God blessed him with such a talented person.
I visited the home of Fr John’s parents a few times. What was remarkable was the stream of Serbian students who came to see him. Serbs are not keen on their own monastics, but as soon as Fr John would visit Belgrade, Serbian students flocked to see him. The righteous lifestyle of the ascetic monk, the strict self-discipline and his love-filled heart attracted the attention and adoration of Serbian students.
The Lord blessed me to attend his episcopal consecration, and to meet with him when he was already a bishop in the residence of Metropolitan Anthony. “See to it that the bishop’s rank doesn’t ruin you… don’t be tempted by delicious dishes, for hierarchs love a good meal… Beware of beautiful women, too,” joked the elder Anthony to the young ascetic hierarch, and the face of Vladyka Anthony shone with joy over the new hierarch of God.
Our people love hierarchical divine services, they seek them out. But the Liturgy that I saw in Belgrade celebrated by Bishop John drew more worshipers than the services of other bishops. He stuttered and mumbled, but there were worshipers galore…
In early 1935, I returned to Poland to serve as a priest. In 1936, I received a letter from Vladyka John, who was in Shanghai, and then a few of his written sermons. In 1958, in Paris, I met with him in person. Many Parisians misunderstood Vladyka, his appearance was off-putting, he walked barefoot. PS Lopoukhine told me that there were complaints against him to Metropolitan Anastassy (Gribanovsky). One complainant asked the Metropolitan to order Vladyka John to wear shoes, so he wrote a letter to him, and the relieved parishioners presented Vladyka John with a pair of new shoes. Vladyka John accepted the gift, thanked them, but he carried the shoes under his arm, not on his feet! Another complaint was sent to the Metropolitan, who again wrote to Vladyka John, reminding him of the importance of obedience, but the reply was “I fulfilled your instructions, which were to get shoes, but not to put them on, but now I will.” And from then on, Vladyka Archbishop John started to wear them.
“Your Vladyka John makes a strange impression on people. His appearance is unattractive, but one thing is certain, he is a man of God, an ascetic and great man of prayer,” said DN Fedchenko, a parishioner of the Russian Exarchate of Constantinople in Paris, and told me the following story about him:
In one of the hospitals of Paris lay an incurable Russian woman. The doctors tried to mitigate her suffering, but accepted the inevitability of her approaching death. On the eve of what the nurses determined was to be her last day, Vladyka John entered the hospital room. He came uninvited, and stopped by her bed. Vladyka prayed for a long time, blessed the unconscious woman and left. The nurses described “an odd Russian priest” praying over her. And at midnight, all of a sudden, the woman rose from her bed, asked for her clothing and said she wanted to go home. Everyone was stunned—she didn’t have the strength to stand up, and now strode right up to the nurses, so they called the doctors, who examined her and proclaimed her to be in perfect health. She said “a man in black came and said that I am healthy and could go home.” She didn’t name him, but the doctors realized it was Vladyka John.
On May 3/16, 1963, Metropolitan Anastassy told me about the cathedral parish’s problems in San Francisco: “I don’t recognize Vladyka John. He used to be a quiet, silent and meek man, now he is persistent, unyielding…” What happened to the ascetic archpastor? His whole life was utterly devoted to God and serving the Church, abstaining from all material needs, especially belonging to a ‘clique’ of like-minded people. Belonging to a warring faction is damaging to the Church in general, and was alien to Vladyka John. But cliques have always existed. Vladyka recognized that matters of principal were sacrificed to conflict, and he came alive, became persistent and unyielding. He always judged Church matters from a reasoned point of view, and he never took sides based on personality. Archbishop John would not change his opinion even to favor a friend.
Exceptionally strict when it came to canonical, Orthodox matters, Vladyka John also rejected any sort of parochialism. This was particularly noteworthy when he was Archbishop of Western Europe, in his reverence and praise of the saints of France from before the Schism; he had this attitude in accepting converts to Orthodoxy with their previous name, if their patron saint was glorified before the Schism.
VF Fradinsky, the curator of the Belgrade University Theological Library, once asked me “How do you view Metropolitan Anthony and Fr John?” That was over 35 years ago. Over those years, the Lord has led me to meet many people of the Church, I’ve seen and heard a great deal within the Church, but I still think about Fradinsky’s question about the spirituality of the two elders. He would use that question to gauge a person’s spiritual state and aptitude for clerical service, and how one answers that question is relevant even today.